The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.
I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.’
17th-century Nursery Rhyme
The desire to blow up the occasional politician is a thoroughly understandable one. In the final stages of Brexit’s vexatious and bad-tempered Uncivil War in November 2018, this notion seems particularly attractive. However, it has already been tried – unsuccessfully.
That old monster Henry VIII really caused the original attempt. The Gunpowder plot of 1605 stemmed from Henry’s decision to change his wife – and England’s religion – 70 years previously.
Henry desperately needed a son to carry on the Tudor monarchy’s line. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce an heir and in 1533 Henry decided she had to go. This was always going to be tricky. Spain was the superpower of the day, so ditching a Spanish princess was guaranteed to annoy the King of Spain. The Pope, ever anxious to curry favour with ‘His Most Catholic Majesty,’ refused to agree with Henry and blocked any divorce.
However, Henry couldn’t wait, so broke away from Rome, declaring himself in 1534 the ‘Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England’. This proclamation conveniently enabled him to annul his marriage to Catherine and to marry Anne Boleyn. (It also allowed him to dissolve the Catholic monasteries and grab their land and money.)
But Henry VIII was no real fan of Luther’s ‘Reformation’, any more than he was of the Roman Pope. He clamped down on all religious fanatics, executing Catholics and Protestants alike. After his death the country slowly polarised into political factions: Catholics on one side; Protestants on the other. Henry VIII’s reforms turned out to be the Brexit of the day.
His Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, tried to turn the clock back. Protestants were persecuted, with 283 burnt at the stake for heresy. When Elizabeth I finally came to the throne she tip-toed carefully through the political and religious minefield she had inherited, declaring she was against ‘making windows in men’s minds’.
Unfortunately she was forced into persecuting Catholics because Rome’s Counter Reformation encouraged numerous plots to murder her and restore Catholicism in England. The Catholic Church, the Pope and Spain desperately wanted to replace Elizabeth with a Catholic monarch – Mary Queen of Scots, for example.
In England every Catholic was now viewed as a probable traitor. The Elizabethan establishment passed savage anti-Catholic laws. Jesuits were ordered to quit the kingdom on pain of death. Catholic priests were fined for saying mass and imprisoned for life. Anyone harbouring a priest risked hanging. Catholics were forbidden to move more than 5 miles from their residences.
It was against this explosive background of what was shaping up to be a religious civil war that King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne in 1603.
James Stuart was viewed with suspicion by his new subjects. Catholics and Protestants were literally at daggers drawn; plots abounded on every side. However, James managed to sign a peace treaty between England and Spain. But Spain and the Pope were still determined to restore freedom of worship for Catholics in England. Ironically, James was distrusted abroad for the repression of Catholics yet at home for being far too tolerant towards them. So, he was always a target. Catholics were plotting once again, this time to put James’s Catholic daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne. The authorities clamped down hard, but a new and deadly plot was brewing.
Robert Catesby, a minor Catholic aristocrat was the mastermind. He had taken part in a rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601 and then fled to the Spanish Netherlands where he began to recruit allies for a new attempt to kill England’s monarch.
By March 1605 the conspirators gathered in London. Their aim was simply to kill the King and as many of the Protestant elite as they could by blowing up the Houses of Parliament with a huge store of gunpowder. The State Opening of Parliament, with the bishops, lords, Privy Council and judges offered a ‘target-rich environment’, including the monarch’s nearest relatives. It was simple and brilliant: all they needed was enough gunpowder, and the opportunity to wipe out England’s hated Protestant ruling elite at a stroke.
The plotters based themselves at Catesby’s lodgings in Lambeth, where their stored gunpowder could be secretly ferried across the Thames. Meanwhile, Parliament pushed through increasingly harsh anti-Catholic legislation.
The gang leased an unused cellar beneath the House of Lords. In those days the Palace of Westminster was easily accessible; merchants, lawyers, and others lived and worked in the lodgings, shops and taverns within its precincts. By August, 36 barrels of gunpowder had been stored. The opening of Parliament was announced for 5 November. The plot was simple; Fawkes would be left to light the fuse and then escape across the Thames, whilst – simultaneously – a revolt in the Midlands would abduct Princess Elizabeth.
However, by now details of the plot were leaking. The wives of those involved became increasingly concerned and on 26 October, Lord Monteagle, the brother-in-law of one the conspirators’ received an anonymous letter warning him ‘as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament’. Alarmed, Monteagle warned James’s spymaster Salisbury, who cannily decided to sit on the intelligence and watch events unfold.
On 1 November the King was informed; he ordered a search of the Houses of Parliament. Half the conspirators moved to the Midlands, ready to abduct Princess Elizabeth. On 4 November Catesby set off North to join them.
On that same evening a search party finally discovered a large pile of firewood beneath the House of Lords, accompanied by ‘a simple serving man.’ It was Guido Fawkes. Later that night an armed party returned to search the undercroft more thoroughly. Once again they found Fawkes. He was arrested, giving his name as ‘John Johnson’. He was carrying a lantern and a pocket watch plus fuses, and slow-matches. Barrels of gunpowder were discovered under firewood.
Although Fawkes’s had been caught red-handed, for two days he was the only conspirator arrested. He openly admitted that he had planned to blow up the House of Lords but staunchly refused to name anyone else. This earned him the praise of King James, who nevertheless reluctantly ordered Fawkes to be tortured to name his accomplices. On 7 November his resolve and his body were broken; on the rack he confessed the identities of his co-conspirators. It was now a manhunt for the fugitives.
At the news of ‘John Johnson’s’ arrest, the plotters had fled. Catesby told them that the King and Salisbury were dead, before the gang moved north, eventually holing up in Holbeche House near Stafford. Tired and desperate, they spread out some of their damp pistol gunpowder in front of the fire to dry out. A spark landed on the powder and the resultant flames engulfed Catesby, and two others. The remaining fugitives resolved to stay on. On 8 November the King’s men surrounded Holbeche House, killing or capturing the surviving conspirators.
During the next few weeks, Salisbury’s agents hunted down the rest of the plotters and tried them for High Treason. Fawkes and the surviving conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fawkes cheated his butchers; moments before the start of his execution, on 31 January 1606, he jumped from a ladder while climbing to the gallows, breaking his neck and dying.
The nation rejoiced. But Catesby’s failed Gunpowder Plot set Catholicism in England back for centuries. New laws were instituted that eliminated the right of Catholics to vote, among other repressive restrictions.
Catesby’s Gunpowder Plot still casts a long shadow. To this day, ‘Guy’ Fawkes’ effigy is burned across Great Britain every Fifth of November and the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are searched to make sure there are no conspirators hiding with explosives to blow up the politicians.
However, sometimes it still seems quite a good idea at times of national constitutional crisis …